What's ahead for drivers: car, van pools; bus rides

If your driving habits have not already changed, they are likely to in the next few years. Much greater use of car and van pooling and park-and-ride bus systems lies ahead for commuters, according on top federal and state transportation officials.

Other methods of public transport likely to become fairly common, according to these experts: shared taxi riding; government-subsidized taxi and van pooling service to replace costlier (in terms of public subsidies) bus routes; and use of school buses for midday shoppers.

The number of commuters using car or van pooling is climbing steadily each year, but the growth is "still sporadic, not as swift as it ought to be," says Angus Duncan, director of energy policy for the US Department of Transportation.

Last fall about 6,000 companies operated van pools, carrying more than 72,000 people daily, according to the National Association of Van Pool Operators. Now the number of companies has reached about 8,000 and is nearly doubling each year , says Robert Redmond of the Federal Highway Administration. No accurate nationwide estimates re available on the number of car pools, he said.

But it is clear that most drivers still commute alone.

To spur greater use of ride sharing, a term applied mostly to car and van pooling, President Carter recently asked Congress to set aside $2.5 billion over the next 10 years out of the windfall-profits tax expected from oil companies. The President also has requested $13 billion for conventional public transportation -- primarily bus and rail.

Until now, officials say, federal funds for nonconventional transportation have been in the same "pot" with federal highway funds -- competing in a sense and losing out most of the time. It is hoped that setting up a separate fund will encourage states to make greater use of more innovative transit programs.

Mr. Duncan, who is currently preparing a list of ways the $2.5 billion could be spent, singles out these items: purchasing or leasing vans for pooling programs; improving traffic-light coordination to speed up rush- hour flows; planning curbs on downtown parking (even to the point of eliminating some downtown parking); planning automobile drive-in engine inspections for fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions.

Do such programs depend on federal initiative? Probably not, says Charles Krouse, a staff member of the transportation subcommittee in the US House of Representatives. "I think you're going to see major alterations in transportation systems in the next few years, whether there are any [new] federal programs or not," he says.

The rising price of gasoline and uncertainty of supply will prompt the changes, Mr. Krouse suggests.

Prof. Frank W. Davis Jr., a transportation specialist at the University of Tennessee, suggests that continued major federal funding of traditional public transit will discourage private initiatives for alternative methods.Fewer federal purchases of vehicles for social programs would encourage private operators to provide the transportation at a lower cost, he thinks.

Some encouragements, however, are not a question of funding. An aide to US Rep. Robert Young (D) of Missouri points out that van pool drivers in most states face an unappealing burden of tax and safety requirements designed for mass transit drivers.

Among teh nonconventional transit programs already in use around the US are these:

* In Marin County, north of San Francisco, the regional transportation agency has been leasing vans for commuter van pooling instead of extending costlier (in terms of money and fuel efficiency) bus lines to outlying areas.

* In Portsmouth, Va., $1 gets you up to a 10-mile taxi ride from the Tower Mall Shopping Center. The regional transit authority pays taxi drivers $2.60 a ride -- but that is cheaper than bus-route subsidies.

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